I am up first thing in the morning because I am being met by the guy who is going to take me into the Demilitarized Zone. I have been told I will need to take my passport with me so that we can get through the military check points.
The 4 kilometre wide stretch of land which keeps the North and South Koreans apart is one of the most heavily mined pieces of land on the planet so I am told not to wander off for my own good. Despite this a North Korean defector surprised everybody last year by knocking on the window of one of the South Korean watch towers, having walked and swam past all the surveillance and mines on both sides completely undetected.
Once inside the zone I couldn’t resist posing next to the sign you see here.
There is also the Kaesong Industrial Park, which is located ten kilometres into North Korea, with direct road and rail access to the south. The park allows South Korean companies to employ cheap labour that is educated, skilled and fluent in Korean, whilst providing North Korea with an important source of foreign currency. South Korean companies employ more than 50,000 workers whose wages totalling $100 million per annum are paid directly to the DPRK government, which is probably the real reason why the North allowed the complex to reopen again after the hostilities that followed a bout of muscle flexing from Kim Yong-Un earlier this year.
I will not be able to go that far North though so am left puzzling on life within the DMZ, where military vehicles park next to shrines, and on the South Korean side there is actually an amusement park. It is a strange place where there are even a few villages existing close to both sides of the ‘border’ in the middle of the zone.
On the south side Daeseongdong is populated by farmers who pay no tax because of where they live. Their crops are highly regarded though, being considered the most organic produce grown in Korea. This is because taking fertiliser, which is a key ingredient in home made explosives, into the zone could be construed as an act of aggression so everything has to be grown naturally.
Another surprising development of the DMZ is that it has unwittingly established one of the best nature sanctuaries in the world. Several endangered animal and plant species including red-crowned cranes, white-naped cranes, the extremely rare Korean tiger, Amur leopards and Asiatic black bears, now exist peacefully between the heavily fortified fences and listening posts, provided they don’t tread on one of the land mines of course!
There are manicured gardens in places too that are just starting to produce vivid autumn colours, and are beautiful to look at even if they are surrounded by razor-wire.
There are a number of bridges across the Imjin river which marks a stretch of the border. The most famous of these is the Bridge of no Return, which was were the James Bond film Die Another Day was set, although I suspect it was probably filmed elsewhere.
In less hostile times Unification Bridge was built providing a modern crossing across which the founder of the Hyundai conglomerate famously drove across hundreds of cows in 1998. Chung Ju-gung was originally from the area now controlled by North Korean, although it was under Japanese rule when he decided to move south, and he wanted to repay a debt of honour to his father who he had stolen a cow from to pay for his train ticket south to Seoul.
Another development from happier times is the Dorasan railway station constructed in preparation for the possible reunification. Apart from visitors to the Kaesong complex it is still largely unused but heavily guarded by the soldiers you see me alongside here. The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that the soldiers based on the border are taller than average, although still somewhat shorter than me. It is one of the three rules for being stationed here, with the others being that they are expert in at least one martial art, and that they are handsome in an effort to upstage their northern neighbours.
Sadly recent hostilities prevent me from visiting the village of Panmunjeom which is located close by, but actually within North Korean territory.
It is the bizarre blue building village which you may have seen on the news where soldiers from the north and south eyeball each other all day long, and sometimes they do it nose to nose.
Whilst everyone is a a bit jumpy I am told that my intended face pulling and name calling would most likely start a full scale nuclear assault so it is probably for the best anyway.
One thing I do see is the North Korean flagpole stationed in their village in the DMZ, which has been nicknamed Propaganda Village due to the fact that nobody lives there even if men women and children are bused in daily to pretend that life is going on there as normal
The flag there is visible because it flies at the top of a 160m high flagpole, which was the winner in a bout of the one upmanship shenannigans which seem to be part of life here. Another entailed trying to bring bigger flags than the other to meetings, until they got so big they could not fit in the meeting rooms.
The South Koreans do appear to be a lot more comfortable with the situation than the North Koreans are (e.g. being willing to let people like me in) but the petty hostility still goes on. You will notice that the South Korean soldier of the two model border guard book ends I bought is a shade taller than the North Korean.
I have asked a few people here what they think about their neighbours, and if they would like to have the country unified in a similar vein to the success of modern Germany, but am told that they don’t want the taxation that everyone knows would be needed to get the north modernised.
It is a shame to hear that especially when you hear how many people are often starving on the other side of the fence.